Carl Hamilton: Elizabeth Jane Weston, The Flea and the Soldier (1606)

Elizabeth Jane Weston (1582-1612) was one of the most accomplished Latin poets of the early modern period. Among her published works is a collection of Aesopic fables rendered into Latin elegiac couplets. Carl Hamilton (Dickinson ’21) reads, translates, and discusses one of them here, “The Flea and the Soldier,” comparing it to Greek and Medieval Latin versions of the same fable.

De Pulice et Milite (On the Flea and the Soldier)

From Elizabeth Jane Weston, Parthenica (Prague: Paulus Sessius, ca. 1606) vol. 2, fol. B7b.

Pulicis interdum est audacia magna pusilli,

aevo si veteri sit tribuenda fides.

Fama refert, illum pulsa formidine, quondam

saltibus intrepidis insiluisse pedi

militis eximii, multorum caede cruenti,

quem voluit stimulis exagitare suis.

Unde etiam hic tremulo gemibundus pectore, numen

Herculeum voto flebiliore vocat,

suppetias misero ut veniat, viresve ministret,

aut acres morsus saevitiemque domet.

Negligit Alcides nequiquam vota ferentem,

ridiculis renuens edere rebus opem.

Iamque adeo observans nullam restare salutem

haesitat, ambiguus mentis, opisque carens,

dum tandem adductus pulex maerore precantis

aufugit atque alium quaerit in aede locum.

Haec ubi facta, imo suspiria pectore ducens

miles iners tremula talia voce refert:

“Tu qui pugnaci virtute domare rebelles,

imbellesque soles fuste iuvare viros:

Si contra exiguum non fortius iveris hostem,

quid sperem, si me nunc graviora gravent?”

 

A little flea sometimes shows great boldness,

If the old tale is to be believed.

Fame reports that that flea, fear having been repulsed, once

With unshaken leaps hopped upon the foot

Of a select soldier, one bloody with the slaying of many men,

Whom the flea wished to attack with his own stings.

Whence also this solider, sighing in his quaking chest, called on

Hercules’ divinity with a lamentable prayer,

So that he would give succor to a miserable one, or lend his strength,

Or vanquish the sharp bites and the cruelty.

Alcides ignored the one bringing prayers in vain,

Refusing to offer help to risible matters.

And already noticing up to this point that no aid remains,

He hesitates, uncertain of his mind, and lacking help,

Until finally the flea, having been persuaded by the sorrow of the one praying,

Fled and sought another place in the house.

When these things were done, drawing sighs from his deepest heart,

The lazy soldier spoke as follows with a quivering voice:

“You who are accustomed to conquer rebels with an aggressive courage,

And help unwarlike men with your club,

If you did not come bravely against a small enemy,

Why would I hope, if now more serious things should weigh me down?”

Vocabulary and notes

pulex pulicis m: flea

interdum: sometimes, occasionally

audacia –ae f: boldness, intrepidity: subject, magna predicate adjective

pusillus –a –um: very small

tribuo tribuere tribui tribitus: grant bestow; allow

aevo…fides: lit. “faith for an ancient time,” meaning, “if we are willing to believe old stories”

formido formidinis f: fear, dread

saltus saltus m: jump, leap

intrepidus –a –um: fearless, unshaken

insilio –ire insilui insultus: leap, bound

eximius –a –um: select, special

caedes –is f: cutting; killing

cruentus –a –um: bloodstained, red

stimulus –i m: prick, sting

exagito (1): harass, disturb; attack

tremulus – a- um: quaking, shaking

gemibundus –a –um: groaning, sighing (more often spelled gemebundus)

flebilis –e: lamentable, tearful

suppetiae –arum f: assistance, succor

ministro (1): execute, carry out; usually meaning giving assistance or aid, here it refers to Hercules’ using his strength for aid

morsus –us m: bite, sting

saevitia –ae f: rage, cruelty; note the variety of conjunctions, ve, aut, que

domo (1): conquer, vanquish

negilgo –ere neglexi neglectus: neglect, ignore; take ferentem as object, vota as object of ferentem

Alcides: Hercules, old birth name for Hercules

nequiquam: in vain

ridiculus –a –um: funny, absurd, risible

renuo –ere renui: shake the head, refuse, decline

observo (1): watch, notice

resto (1): stand firm, remain

haesito (1): hesitate, be uncertain

ambiguus –a –um: doubtful, uncertain

adduco –ere adduxi adductus: induce, persuade

maeror –oris: m. sorrow, grief

aedis –is f: house

imus –a –um: lowest, deepest

suspirium –i n. sigh

iners inertis: sluggish, inactive

tremulus –a –um: shaking, quaking, quivering

pugnax pugnacis: aggressive, pugnacious

rebellis, rebellis m: rebel

inbellis –e: unwarlike, peaceful

fustis –is: cudgel, club

exiguus –a –um: paltry, inadequate

si…hostem: protasis of afuture more vivid condition

gravo (1): weigh down, oppress: graviora subject, me object

quid sperem: apodosis of two protases, the future more vivid above and the following present contrary to fact protasis with which it most closely accords, forming a complete present cont. fact condition.

Similar Aesopic Fables

ΨΎΛΛΑ (The Flea)

From K. Halm, Fabulae Aesopicae Collectae (Leipzig: Teubner, 1854)  #424, p. 205

ψύλλα ποτὲ πηδήσασα ἐπὶ πόδα ἀνδρὸς ἐκάθισεν. ὁ δὲ τὸν Ἡρακλῆν ἐπὶ συμμαχίαν ἐκάλει. τῆς δὲ ἐκεῖθεν αὖθις ἀφαλομένης στενάξας εἶπεν· „ὦ Ἡράκλεις, εἰ ἐπὶ ψύλλῃ οὐ συνεμάχησας, πῶς ἐπὶ μείζοσιν ἀνταγωνισταῖς συνεργήσεις;“

ὁ μῦθος δηλοῖ μὴ δεῖν ἐπὶ τῶν ἐλαχίστων τοῦ θείου δεῖσθαι, ἀλλ’ ἐπὶ τῶν ἀναγκαίων.

Once upon a time a flea, having landed on the foot of a man, sat down. The man was calling Heracles for aid. And with the flea jumping off again, the man, having sighed deeply, said: “Ο Heracles, if you did not help (me) against a flea, how will you assist against larger rivals?”

The story shows that one must not ask the gods for the smallest things, but for necessary things.

Pulex, Homo, et Hercules (The Flea, the Man, and Hercules)

From Laura Gibbs, Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop’s Fables in Latin (Morrisville, NC: Lulu Publishers, 2010), #703, p. 224 (Perry #231), from Joachim Camerarius’ Fabulae Aesopicae (1579)

Cum insiluisset pulex in pedem cuiusdam, ille ad opprimendum hunc Herculem invocavit. Sed cum pulex se illinc mox saltu subduxisset, cum gemitu ille “Hercules,” inquit, “quid ego abs te opis in magnis periculis exspectem, qui contra pulicem adesse mihi noluisti?”

When the flea had jumped on the foot of a certain man, that man invoked Hercules for squashing this flea. But when the flea had soon removed himself from there with a leap, that man said with a groan, “Hercules, what aid can I expect from you in great dangers, you who did not wish to help me against a flea?”

Discussion

While adhering to the basic storyline, Elizabeth Jane Weston’s retelling of “The Flea and the Soldier” embellishes the tale for great humorous effect. In her hands, what by many accounts is a short fable of proper religion becomes an ironic tale of a great solider being laid low by the smallest of annoyances. By showing the laughter of the gods at the soldier’s pleas, Weston invites us to see the fable as a comedy of humanity, rather than a religious admonition.

Weston makes many innovations when it comes to the human character, starting with his identity. In Gibbs he is called cuiusdam, “a certain man,” and in the Greek version “a man.” This title, vague as regards everything but sex, closes readers off from any knowledge of the human character. For Weston, though, he is a miles “soldier,” which signifies a certain toughness in the contrast to the very small, pusillus, flea. Weston deepens the soldier’s characterization by relating what kind of a solider he is, one who is eximii, multorum caede cruenti, “select, bloodstained from the killing of many men.” This description increases the stature of the solider by making him especially pugnacious and, so it seems, intrepid in dangers.

But not for long does this impression last. Weston has built this image of soldier for optimal ironic contrast, a kind of poetic form of “the bigger they come the harder they fall.” In the very next line Weston subverts the soldier’s daring, when, upon being bitten, he sighs, gemebundus, from his quaking chest, tremulo pectore. He calls himself a miserable one, misero, and the bites of the flea sharp, acres morsus, all while calling for the strength, vires, of Hercules to save him. By depicting him first as bloody and then as pusillanimous, Weston has made the solider not merely pathetic, but bathetic. Any strength the solider may have had has instantly vanished by being made so helpless by something so small.

The reader feels his fall so quickly and clearly because of Weston’s remarkable concision. As we saw above, she communicates the soldier’s valor in one simple line, but one which is quite vivid with the image of a blood-stained warrior. She then relates his helplessness in four lines filled with five pregnant adjectives, tremulo, gemibundus, flebiliore, misero, acres. For the reader, the celerity of the verse mimics the quickness of the soldier’s change from brave to weak. Weston causes the reader to understand that perhaps his strength was simply masking his inner weakness all along.

But if the solider himself lacks a true soldier’s mettle, with whom do these qualities lie? The answer is with the flea. By going back to the beginning of the poem, we will notice that Weston always describes the strength of the flea as a contrast to the weakness of the solider. The first line is a marvelous study of this ironic turn: Pulicis interdum est audacia magna pusilli. The flea here, although small, nevertheless has great boldness. The brilliant antithesis of magna and pusilli as the heroic clausula foreshadows the central contrast of the poem, namely that the mighty are weak (soldier) and the weak are mighty (flea). The flea leaps fearlessly, saltibus intrepidis, upon the man, wishing to strike him with his own stings, stimulis exagitare suis. The reflexive adjective suis attributes an unexpected daring to the flea, who wants to give the soldier, a “taste of his own warlike medicine,” so to speak. The flea then flees to seek another foot to pester, aufugit atque alium quaerit in aede locum. In a role reversal, the flea has now become more of a soldier than the actual soldier, acutely beating his enemy and moving on to fight the next battle.

We have yet to mention Hercules, to whom the solider prays for aid. In most versions he is silent, present only through the vocative of the soldier’s plea which ends the poem. Not content with a mute character, Weston endows him with a judgement more savage than silence. Hercules instead declines to help the man because his pleas are for “absurd things,” ridiculis rebus. The silence of Hercules found in other versions leaves the reason for rejection open to interpretation. Was Hercules offended by such a small plea? Did he simply not care about a flea? Weston’s telling settles these questions with the introduction of humor. Hercules is essentially saying to the solider, “Oh come on, get over yourself.”

All three of these characterizations anticipate the final questions of the solider, which act as both the climax and the moral of the tale. Inactive with a shaking voice, iners tremula talia voce, the solider pleads with Hercules. He begins by reciting the attributes of the god, who vanquishes the rebels in battle with a warlike virility, and gives aid to the peaceful with a cudgel, Tu qui pugnaci virtute domare rebelles, imbellesque soles fuste iuvare viros. These attributes serve both as flattery for Hercules and as reasons why Hercules should have helped him. The beautiful irony here is that presumably the solider thinks he possesses these warlike qualities. He then continues with his final helpless inquiry, that if Hercules will not help him against a small enemy, how could he hope for aid when large dangers beset him? Si contra exiguum non fortius iveris hostem, quid sperem, si me nunc graviora gravent?

This final line acts as the negative moral of the fable, spelled out explicitly in the Greek version as: “The myth shows that one must not ask god for the smallest things, but for necessary things.” Weston’s fable adds depth to this moral by telling us why the gods won’t help, namely, because such pleas are ridiculous and completely within human power to solve. In this way Weston is using this fable in a decidedly humanist fashion. Far from, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” or “Knock and the door will be open for you,” Weston’s fable here says “If you can get in the door by yourself, do it.” The soldier’s former bravery causes us, as well as Hercules, to laugh at his pitiful importuning precisely because he can “get in the door” but instead surrenders to the divine.

Throughout her life, Weston indeed got herself in the door both in her career and her poetry. Aided by her friend Baldhoven, she tirelessly promoted her poetry both in the older feudal ways, by writing to Rudolf II and King James as potential patrons, as well as the newer commercial avenue, by ensuring the publication of her poems. In her poetry itself, Weston relished the classical potential of the Renaissance, seen most vividly here in her use of the learned “Alcides” for Hercules. She also circulated her poetry among the learned and very male elite, something rare in her day, but even rarer before the Renaissance. All told, Weston was the anti-solider, one who seized upon her human potential for poetic creativity, undaunted by the many fleas of her life, most notably poverty after the mysterious ill-fortune of her stepfather. Weston thus allows us to read her “The Flea and the Solider” as a humorous assertion of humanist creative potential, in which God is there, but distant, and human achievement and concerns come to the fore.

This edition was completed as the final project for Latin 234: Ovid, taught by Christopher Francese in Spring 2021. Prof. Francese modernized the Latin orthography.

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